We have already previewed the first and second quarters of the Vikings’ regular season. Now it is time to check arguably the most important stretch, weeks nine through 13. These games include three division bouts, a matchup with the twice-defending AFC champs and mercifully, a bye week.

Week 9: Nov. 4 vs. Detroit Lions

By this point in the season, we will have a better idea of what the Lions project to be. Not much has changed from last year’s roster: They have lost some key pieces, namely Haloti Ngata, Tahir Whitehead and Eric Ebron. They added Devon Kennard to the defense and LeGarrette Blount to the backfield in free agency. But perhaps most importantly, Detroit put some real though into protecting Matthew Stafford through the draft. Frank Ragnow will likely start at either center or guard day one and fifth round tackle Tyrell Crosby was a second-rounder in many eyes.

Detroit was undoubtedly the Vikings toughest competition within the division last year, handing them one of their three losses and falling by just a single score on Thanksgiving. But the Lions have also recently been one of the least consistent teams in the NFC. Their offense wavers from explosive to anemic on a week-to-week basis. The defense is young and fast with some talented players at all three levels. But they too can show massive holes, depending on the week. A lot of that inconsistency falls on Matthew Stafford, who can be an All-Pro one game and Jay Cutler the next.

The Lions have worked to take some pressure off Stafford with a litany of backfield options and an (hopefully) improved line. Blount and rookie Kerryon Johnson join a group of Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick, who each had over 700 all-purpose yards. But again, it will be running back by committee with no true game-breaker. Also, with the loss of Darren Fells and Eric Ebron, Stafford could be hurting for reliable targets outside of his top receivers, Marvin Jones and Golden Tate. Detroit will never be a pushover, but it is hard to imagine them truly challenging the Vikings or Packers for the top spot in the division.

Week 10: Bye

Week 11: Nov. 18 @ Chicago Bears

Chicago is still probably a year or two away from really competing. But Ryan Pace deserves praise for what he has done this offseason. First of all, he addressed the team’s greatest need: receiving threats for Mitchell Trubisky. And he addressed it hard. He brought in Allen Robinson, who when healthy is an ace, Taylor Gabriel, a solid slot and tight end Trey Burton, a versatile target who can play on the line or split out wide. And then Pace added further with Anthony Miller, the rookie out of Memphis. While not the most lethal group in the league, the Bears receiver room on paper looks leaps and bounds ahead of where it was last year.

Speaking of the draft, Pace selected arguably the surest thing in the class in linebacker Roquan Smith. Smith figures to contribute immediately in a town accustomed to talented linebackers. And he joins a defense that was criminally underrated in 2017. Kyle Fuller and Adrian Amos took steps last year. Leonard Floyd and Eddie Jackson have high upside. And Akiem Hicks is one of the most disruptive players in football. The defense is ready to push elite offenses right now.

The offense is the major question mark. And like Detroit, it will come down to the quarterback. If nothing else, Trubisky showed last year he belonged in the league. The offense was clearly toned down to account for his inexperience and lack of weapons. But now, the gloves should come off. Matt Nagy is an offensive mind who uses his weapons to their full effect. Trubisky has the talent to take on the tough tasks, he only has to corral it.

Week 12: Nov. 25 vs. Green Bay Packers

This will be the third consecutive division game and arguably the most important of the season. Most fans are expecting the Packers to be the greatest threat to the Vikings’ division crown and it is largely because of one man. By week 12, Minnesota likely will not have developed a substantial gap in the standings, if any at all. Aaron Rodgers lost his season to the Vikings a year ago at U.S. Bank Stadium, so fans can bet there will be a little extra juice on his passes in week 12.

This game will not quite be far enough along in the season to slam the door on the NFC North. But given how tough the Vikings’ schedule is weeks one through eight, it is that much more important to win division games, especially at home. This is not a bold prediction by any means: Count on this matchup to have the loudest U.S. Bank crowd of the regular season.

Week 13: Dec. 2 @ New England Patriots

The importance of AFC games is always overrated. They essentially do not count for any tiebreakers, so they contribute only to overall record and pride. That is not to say this road game is unimportant; it is getting toward the home stretch of the season, after all. But a lot of pundits are probably going to mark this game down as a loss pre-season.

New England is the two-time defending AFC champs with a 40-year-old quarterback, who happens to also be the reigning-league MVP. They have made a surprising number of changes to both sides of the ball. That includes losing two of their top receivers, Danny Amendola and Brandin Cooks. But if there is one thing we know about Tom Brady and Bill Belichick is they always find the next guy. This Patriots are a virtual lock to win their division and they will almost certainly still be there in mid-January. They always are.

What this game does is offer the new-look Vikings a chance to prove they can win anywhere against anyone. They are an indoor team, so the reputation will follow that they struggle in harsh conditions. December in Foxborough is certainly to bring sub-optimal weather. Kirk Cousins is used to it. The rest of the team, not quite as much. That will perhaps be the most interesting test as the Vikings push towards the final stretch of the regular season.

–Sam Smith is the Managing Editor for Full Press Coverage Vikings and Full Press Coverage NFC North. Like and

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